Parashat Shelach Lecha: Optical Illusion
Rabbi Baron Dasberg, Rabbi of Ulpanat Oriya
This is one of the central pedagogical questions we grapple with – how do we forge our children (and ourselves) into people of faith?
We once thought that we could achieve anything through reason. If we would only use logical reasoning to explain our faith, we could demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the principles of our faith are true, and then, any wise and sensible person would have to accept our faith. Beyond the dispute over whether the principles of faith can be proven, it turns out that a person’s way of life can’t be redirected through cognitive reasoning alone (like the health care professionals who continue smoking, even though they are completely cognizant of how harmful smoking is). So, we can influence others through emotion, with the warm embrace and peace of mind that our faith instills in us. We can fortify a person’s will and strengthen their inner energy and commitment to achieving their goal. We can draw people nearer using psychological and sociological tools, as well as other tools.
However, our Parasha suggests a completely different direction to take – to draw closer to Hashem and the observance of His mitzvot by looking at the blue fringes of our tzizit – “and you shall look at it and recall all the commandments of Hashem and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.”
So how does it work? How can a person connect to a deeply-felt faith and the constant performance of the mitzvot simply by looking at something?
To answer that question, the Midrash uses another magnificent power that we have – the power of imagination. The Midrash explains as follows: “Techelet resembles the grass, and the grass resembles the sea, and the sea resembles the firmament, and the firmament resembles the rainbow, and the rainbow resembles the cloud, and the cloud resembles the throne [of Hashem], and the throne resembles the splendor [of Hashem]” (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar, 14:3)
Indeed, you’d need to be very imaginative to be able to like techelet to the grass, the grass to the sea, or a cloud to the Throne of Splendor. Clearly, this extended simile is indeed a very challenging concept to grasp. Will gazing at the tassel of techelet fill my imagination with images and carry me off to lofty concepts like Hashem’s splendor?
Seemingly, the entire midrash has now entered the realm of optical illusion, a realm that blends reality with how we perceive it, as our imaginations challenge the “objectiveness” of our reason. The grass in the midrash is individual objects, individual blades blowing in the wind, but when they all move together, they begin to resemble the rolling waves of the sea. The sea isn’t truly blue – it’s just a reflection of the sky. The sky itself isn’t blue, either. What we are actually seeing in the sky are the waves, high above, that are scattered as sunlight is broken apart. If we see the range of frequencies from the shattered sunrays, we’ll see a spectrum of colors reminiscent of a rainbow. But that isn’t the true color of the light, either. It’s just the illusion we see when looking at it from our vantage point. The clouds are responsible for breaking apart the sunlight, and those clouds change into many shapes through a set of optical illusions. The realms of the mind and the imagination coalesce.
The same goes for how we perceive the ways of Hashem in our world. Sometimes, we analyze an isolated phenomenon (like a blade of grass), but isolated phenomena don’t truly reflect Hashem’s true workings in this world, and only a wider lens can truly reveal His ways to us. Sometimes, what we are seeing is just a reflection of what He’s really done, like the sea. We can’t truly appreciate His immense light, rather merely various manifestations of it that we can sense through vision. Some are simple sights to behold (such as the blue color of the sky), some are more complex (such as a rainbow), and others yet can only be perceived as the breaking point of light and benevolence (like the appearance of the clouds). All the things we physically sense aren’t Hashem Himself, but only His “throne”, or His “splendor”.
The tassel of techelet catapults us into the realms of our imaginations. It reminds us that imagination can evoke fears that paralyze an entire nation and bar its way to the Promised Land, but imagination can also connect us with the Higher Worlds, places our reasoning could never reach.
When we set out on our journey into our imaginations, we must remember that we won’t be packing our suitcases with skepticism and the tools of criticism. Instead, we’ll be taking along our will, our adherence, our connection, our reverence and our love. Our minds will follow.